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Log, Mar 13, 2009

14 people. We had an enthusiastic if rather small gathering tonight. The forecasts were glowing for the evening. Unfortunately, "glowing" turned out to rather too literally true. Light reflected from Foxwoods and the cities to the north. By 10 PM Francine and Les decided that no one else was likely to come if the checked the sky and that the sky itself was unlikely to really clear. Oh, there were spots where it was clear enough to see a few stars through a faint gauzy layer of clouds but even that was going to disappear as the Moon rose.

Yet we did some fun things during the session. Venus was stunning a thin crescent of with only 7% of its surface illuminated. Even this thin slice was bright enough to keep Venus the brightest thing in the sky. On March 27th this year, Venus will "lap" the Earth and pass out of the evening sky into the morning sky. Even next week, it will be so close to the horizon that we will have limited chances to see it. Spring is arriving and the winter constellations are leaving, so we will be taking some last looks into Orion over the next few weeks.

Francine was worried that people would be disappointed that Saturn's "Rings" look like Saturn's "Stubby Lines". However her explanation that the plane of the "Rings" matches the plane of the Earth's orbit twice during Saturn's long 29+ year-long "year" made this event special enough that lots of people felt it really was something pretty neat.

Ceres was a target tonight. We had planned on trying for the fast fading Comet Lulin but the soupy clouds and the reflected light made this a poor choice. Ceres has just passed its nearest approach to Earth in many decades and managed to reach magnitude 6.9 making it the only member of the Asteroid Belt to be theoretically bright enough to be seen from an ideal location by a particularly sharp eyed person. Tonight, Ceres has faded a little to magnitude 7.2 but was easily the brightest object in the field of view of the eyepiece.

Francine impressed the assembled multitude by correctly identifying a double star without knowing exactly where the telescope was pointed. She identified Algieba (Gamma Leonis). Mean old Les explained how while we are very familiar with the sky we do use "crutches" to help us identify things like Algieba. First of all, most double stars have two distinctly different levels of brightness. Both stars of Gamma Leonis are very similar in brightness, hence unusual. Francine could tell at a glance that the scope was pointed somewhere near the Realm of the Galaxies (the area of the sky that holds Leo, Coma and Virgo). Finally she knew that Les was star hopping towards Ceres at the time (which was in Leo Minor) and that the third brightest star in Leo was a great alignment star.

Yet Francine has nothing to be less than very proud of her ability to navigate the night sky. How many of us could pick out the third brightest star of a constellation like Leo?

Speaking of picking out spectacular stars, there is one constellation in the northern hemisphere which is so utterly drab that almost anyone of us would have a hard time pointing it out. I'm sure that all of us that can remember at least 50 years ago have heard "If you can't say something nice about someone, then don't say anything at all." Usually the person admonishing us was a parent or a teacher. Good words to live by, but this leaves me with the problem of what to say about really nothing constellations.

Some constellations have almost nothing to distinguish them. Fornax and Sculptor come to mind but even these two have a few reasonable galaxies to act as challenges. In any case, for those of us living at above 40 degrees north latitude these constellations are always out of sight and out of mind.

The northern constellation with the least going for it has to be the only constellation who's Latin and English names are the same - Lynx. The only galaxy in it remotely within the capabilities of our 16" is the Bear Claw Galaxy. Ever seen it? Well neither have I and I don't plan to extend my "life list" by including it. About the only good thing I can find to recommend it, is that it is in a nice neighborhood surrounded some familiar constellations (Auriga, Ursa Major [Big Dipper], Cancer and Gemini) as well as the lesser constellations of Leo Minor and Camelopardalis [Giraffe]. Lynx is the empty space between them.

How do we find this most drab of northern constellations? Probably the easiest way is to look for the blank area between the constellations I mentioned. You are probably there. Well if you must, maybe a way of finding it is to form a roughly equilateral triangle from the brightest stars in Leo [Regulus], Gemini [Castor although you won't be too far off if you use Pollex by accident] and Ursa Major [Duhbe, the pointer star nearest to Polaris]. Look in the center of that triangle. See some bright stars? Well they aren't in Lynx but the nearby stars Kappa and Iota Ursa Majoris. Slide away from them towards Regulus and see if you can find a trio of dim stars in a line. If you succeed then you have seen the best Lynx has to offer. Want to see the rest of Lynx? Start at the star in Lynx closet to Leo. Sweep away in the opposite direction from Regulus for 40 degrees. Yup, Lynx is a full 40 degrees long. I didn't say Lynx was small but just that long as it is; it has almost nothing to offer. Haven't I forgotten to pay attention to the maxim taught to me as a child? Well not really, Lynx is a big pussy cat not a person.

-Les Coleman

Leslie Coleman
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Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Mar 13, 2009
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Leslie Coleman's Log
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